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Honoring Centennial of American Women’s Suffrage, and More

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Reginald Mobley elucidates his new role.

H+H’s new programming consultant Reginald Mobley will guide members of the Handel and Haydn Society Orchestra and Chorus through works by American female composers in the online Every Voice concert for peace and justice. A tribute to female composers including queer women and women of color features the Venite, laetantes, Op. 20 no. 12, by Isabella Leonarda, and works by Mari Esabel Valverde’s Prelude for Piano in A-flat Major and  Zanaida Stewart Robles’s Kuumba. Florence Price and Amy Beach works will also appear on the bill. Readings will precede each section. “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing” closes the prerecorded show. Handel and Haydn alto Emily Marvosh will then offer a live Q&A. Tickets for the November 8th 3pm event are HERE.

FLE: Since Handel and Haydn’s bicentennial, in 2015. you have been working as curator and conductor, director, whatever. Last April the organization created the role of programming consultant for you and expects you to reach out, both among underserved communities and unjustly ignored repertoires. So how much of each of those is important to your role?

Reginald Mobley: Both are important, and they’re also connected, outreach to populations and outreach to unusual composers that are presumably foreign in both cases to the Handel and Haydn community. First they gave me the role as a director. I’ve kind of pushed the issue that it’s kind of the role of an arts organization of caretakers and gatekeepers of culture that we belong to the community that we rest in, and that we owe it to Boston as an entire community, not just the Back Bay and maybe bits of Cambridge and other parts of more well-heeled bits of Boston, that we know it’s all of Boston to really spread the idea of the arts and culture and what exists. Music can change people. We owe that to Dorchester and Mattapan and East Boston as much as we owe it to Back Bay and Chestnut Hill and Brookline and JP. If we’re going to be a part of the community, we need to integrate ourselves in all the community.

That’s what I’ve been shooting for with Every Voice and that’s where we’re headed. And then with the diversity consultant role, we’re bringing a wider selection of composers to the main stage and the subscription series, making it understood that all of classical music has been more diverse than a typical period arts orchestra would normally offer. At least in New England.

Over the years, Handel and Haydn has changed its focus enormously. In the 19th century, they were performing living 19th-century composers as well as 18th-century composers. The very name referred to the venerated recent past of 1815 and also to the contemporary-music present: Handel, and Haydn. And occasionally in recent years, Handel and Haydn has commissioned. But in a way, it’s going back to its middle roots, at least in terms of having a broader repertoire. Does that mean that the specialists in Baroque singing and period singing are going to be having the develop new comfort zones for what you’re going to ask them to do?

I don’t know if we’ll be asking them to develop completely new comfort zones. That’s one of the boons of people who are trained in America, that we, to survive, we have to be versatile. We have to be able to put down our gamba and pick up a modern cello. We have to be able to sing in conventional operatic style as well in styles that we think appropriate for Palestrina and Bach. We tend to conflate the idea that historical performance just means early music. The idea is to be as authentic as possible with every style that we present. We’ll play Mendelssohn in the way that Mendelssohn probably would have played in his time. In the same way, if they did Brahms or Mahler, it would be done with the instruments and style of the time. That’s the idea of historic performance — not just to sing Bach with straight tone and then kind feel uncomfortable with everything else. It’s much wider than we tend to understand the issue. So yes, definitely we’re broadening into those styles, but also, we’re looking into the composers that have been forgotten that lived in those times as well: Amy Beach and Florence Price and Samuel Coates Taylor.

Beach and Price have gotten a lot of revivals lately in Boston at least. But I’m curious, before we go on to the composers in this next program, that for instance, if you’re doing spirituals or  works by 19th-century Black composers, how do we you deal with the dialect question?

I know that some feel that the dialect should be altered so it doesn’t seem trite or overtly minstrelsy — but if we don’t really understand it or don’t take it seriously, we can’t do it convincingly. A lot of groups will soften the dialects, but with whatever we do the hard work of understanding those composers and wordsmiths in historical contexts, much as we spend a lot of time fretting over German Latin, Italian Latin and French Latin, and fretting over medieval French … but then when it comes to the context of dialects for slave songs and spirituals, we get sheepish all of a sudden. Scholars and serious musicians and historical performers should also treat those song with care and respect. We will observe the dialects as they were set by the composers that wrote or arranged these pieces.

Might the dialect include use of words that are hurtful now that weren’t so hurtful then?

It depends on if we do those specific songs. But no, I see no reason to shy away from what was written, especially the ones written by black composers from that time. I don’t see a need to change anything. In the rare instances where language is overtly offensive, we probably wouldn’t be doing many of those songs anyway. There’s not a large enough setting that warrants bringing some of these songs to Symphony Hall stage, unless they are arranged as such. But I don’t see a reason to alter those words.

This comes up in shows like Porgy and Bess and Showboat all the time.

Right. But those are written by white people. That’s a different case.

Let’s go on to the show at hand. Most of our readers have by now heard or read about Florence Price and Amy Beech a fair amount, because they’re being revived all the time. But you’re starting out with Isabella Leonarda, a 17th-century “gay” composer from a convent. Is Leonarda’s music worth reviving on its own, or just because it can be focused on by the queer and female lens?

I will answer with another question. Was Vivaldi worth reviving? Was Telemann or Hummel? We don’t ask that question for the understood white male canon that we revere. But this question is so often asked whenever it comes to composers of color, or female composers, or queer composers. I’m bringing Isabel Leonarda forward because it fits in the context of this concert, but I bring her forward in every context, because her music is just incredible. Yes, she was an Ursuline nun, born in Navarra in 1620, and she was the first woman to publish an instrumental sonata. She wrote over the course of 60 years. She published her last volume when she was 80. She was unbelievably prolific. And her music is charming. It’s beautiful. It’s much more interesting than some of the stuff we hear from some of the composers that we know from that very period. Just because of the way Western and European music has been canonized, we just don’t even think to look at some of these composers.

But Clara Schumann was incredible. Nannerl Mozart was incredible. So was Fanny Mendelssohn, and we need to look at them not just because it’s chic to look at composers of color or female composers, but because their music is beautiful too. And when you really stand it next to some of the composers that we typically know, that are in common language, it stands just as strongly, just as brilliantly as anything else. So yeah, the circumstance of bringing Leonarda to this concert is, yes, because that’s the focus of this concert, but we shouldn’t put this music away like Christmas carols after this concert’s over. This needs to be brought into mainstream rotation as well.

Okay, because you know as well as I do, most music that’s been composed has been forgotten. We’re listening to 1% of what’s been written. So 99% of forgotten scores deserve neglect, but you seem to be advocating strongly for the 1% which includes women. It will be interesting to find out if audiences agree.

I recorded an entire album of her Marian cantatas. That was my first album with Agave Baroque, so I am very fond of her, and I believe in her.

Are there accounts of performances of her music in her own time?

Well, because she was a nun, not widely. She didn’t visit opera houses, but there were definitely known performances that she did at the convent. Female instrumentalists and players and singers would basically perform behind a scrim, and people from the community, and people from out of town, would come and hear these services. Her works were heard. They didn’t just an exercise for her sanity.

There must be something written about her beyond her music; otherwise on what basis would you conclude that she’s gay?

On what people do conclude that Bach is straight? I’m not saying that she’s gay. I’m not saying that Bach was straight. But the construct of orientation did not exist until the 19th century. There was no such thing as bisexual or heterosexual or homosexual. That wasn’t understood in that way then. We do know of a lot: there are accounts of other nuns of that time who did find love with other nuns at the time, and there are several musicologists who have written about the idea that Leonarda may have been among that number, especially through the idea that there may have been a double dedication in some of her Marian cantatas, that they weren’t just speaking of, and praising the Virgin Mary, but these texts could also be read as expressions of love to someone else who might have been in the convent that she knew. Musicologists tend to have been for a very long time very straight and very white and very male, and there are things that you just don’t pick up on or don’t care to view them, or don’t care to think about, because you can just focus on the music, as you are always well-represented. But are they always being well-represented? There are things in writings and contextual evidence of how people lived at the time that people who are part of those communities do happen to pick up on, or do happen to see more deeply than someone who doesn’t. So because there have been plenty of similar writings about Leonarda’s sexuality in that way, that she might have been queer, I have no reason to doubt it, because there’s no more proof that she wasn’t, or that she was straight. The sort of thing that has been said about Schubert has been said about Handel, has said about Corelli, and even Cardinal Ottoboni, who was the patron in Italy, in Rome, who basically had Handel and Corelli and others and Stefani in his court. He had many children, but it was well known that he was fonder of the many young men, with musicians he collected in his court, in the Arcadian Society of that time. Because he doesn’t come out with a Pride flag doesn’t mean that he’s straight.

Is there going to be much discussion of these matters in the presentation?

Not in this one. This concert on Sunday is kind of an abbreviated version of a planned program with many more composers. Because of the pandemic, we’ve had to kind of put that on hold, and because of the new heightened restrictions, and the recent banning of indoor singing, we’ve had to shrink things even further.

How and when did you record these things?

We recorded the vocal pieces in August. And the instrumental pieces, that [keyboardist] Julia Scott Carey played, the piano pieces, she was able to record obviously onsite at the Meeting House, because it’s not indoor singing. It’s just her on piano with a film crew. And then the one piece at the end, “Lift Up Your Voice and Sing,” was done remotely, so everyone did the whole virtual recording when they recorded at home with a track, and then it’s been stitched together by another.

So you’re going to encourage all of us to sing during that? [text below]

I would hope you do. I can’t check up on that and know that you’re doing it for sure. But I would like all to know that “Lift Every Voice and Sing” is such an important song to  Black communities that it was adopted as the Black National Anthem. But rather than sing the second verse* you should listen and read and hear the words and reflect on them, if it’s not your community specifically. But in the third verse, I definitely call out to everybody at home, if you want to record your phone and send it to me, and let me know that you did it, go ahead, Lee. I would love it.

We’ve got two more composers to talk about that we don’t know. And then I’ll have a couple of more general questions. Mari Esabel Valverde?

Yes. Mari is awesome. She’s a trans Latina composer in Texas, whom I’ve known just, we’re friends on Facebook, and she’s done a lot of composing, a lot of choral music. She’s big in the HDA circuit and whatnot. And I’ve listened to some of it, and what I realized that, when I started to do this concert, I realized I needed to have her involved, because she is such a great singer, and she’s such an advocate for underrepresented people: trans, queer, undocumented, and of color. And she seeks outs and tends to compose a lot of her pieces with the writings of some of those underrepresented groups.

And Zanaida Steweart Robles?

Nada is also a huge advocate. She lives in in Southern California and she is on the board of the National Association of Negro Musicians. She’s a part of Tonality, which is a nonprofit choral organization that tends be a social justice choir, and they tend to do all these great works that are based on certain issues, such as breast cancer, or queer issues, or Latinx issues in the area. But she’s a composer who’s written a lot for them, and for herself and the concert choir and so forth; and the concert choir with H&H, the children’s choir, they’ve done pieces of hers before, and they are just a huge fan, and I’m a huge fan of Nada. She is also one of the coauthors, with me, of the Black Voices Matter pledge that was released on Juneteenth. Several of us got together and wrote this pledge. She’s also just an incredible speaker and advocate and composer. There’s no way I would have done this concert without something of hers. She’s someone that should be known for sure.

* * *

Let’s go back. What do you see as the barriers in preventing certain groups from attending classical concerts? The Boston Symphony and others go out of their way to be hospitable, as far as I can tell, and Robert Freeman used to give a speech when he was president of New England Conservatory about how he would sit at his desk and look in one direction at Roxbury and the other toward Back Bay; he felt his job to bring the two together.

First of all, we shouldn’t just be saying that we’re here and that the doors are open. That’s kind of lazy. We should be going to them.

Many emotional and social barriers exist because of racism. I never thought to pursue or listen to classical music, because I was always led to believe that this music was just for old rich white people, and this was not something that a young Black boy could be a part of.

I could listen to it, but it’s not a place where I thought I could ever be welcome. And so I didn’t, because there was just that sense of unwelcomeness. And when the door had been locked for so long, you unlock the door to let people in, if we’d known the door was unlocked, why would we try? That’s not the work that needs to be done. You have to put down your thumb to balance the scale. But the work that should be done is, we shouldn’t just unlock the door. We shouldn’t just unlock the gate for access to participating in, as an artist or as a performer, or as any part of what the arts are. But we need to open the door ourselves and reach out hands out to these communities, reach out hands and say, you are part of this. You are welcome. This belongs to you as much as it belongs to me. And we should also be going to them. We shouldn’t just be giving out a few free tickets to Symphony Hall. A family in Mattapan or Roxbury may not have the ability to just drop everything and go to Symphony, go to Back Bay for a concert and afford to dine at Lucca or the very much missed Brasserie Joe, before going to a concert. That’s not feasible for many families, especially the ones we want to give access to for this music. We should be going to them and bringing our patrons and our donors and those dollars attached to that area, because it’s been shown where art and entertainment benefit communities financially, people paying the parking fees, going to the restaurant there before the concert, or having a drink nearby afterward, also just walking to a bodega for a pack of gum. We need to be bringing this wealth and this culture to every corner of our communities, not just one spot, just because it’s pretty and it’s been there forever. That’s some of the stuff that we should be doing.

Can you enlighten us as to whether you, Handel and Haydn, has succeeded in these concerts in the neighborhoods?

I’d like to think so. The venues where we’ve gone, such as First Church of Roxbury, which has been our partner for so long, a wonderful partner for so long, and Arlington Street Church, they have been very receptive to us. And the people who have attended have loved that it’s there. They have, and attendance has grown because of it, because we have been reaching out and placing ourselves where they are and being where they are. I think in many ways it’s succeeded. Unfortunately, because of the pandemic, a lot of the progress that we’ve had, the four moves that we had for this year, were canceled. We were going to bring another concert to All Saints in Ashmont, in Dorchester, this year, and we were also going to, and we were going to invite, my plan was to invite the Ashmont Boys Choir to also participate in the concert. And we also, last year, in our concert, we showcased the Jewish community. And there has been a lot of feedback from members of the community who wanted to really kind of further ties and in cooperation. I was planning to go to a Seder and to meet several people in March. Unfortunately, the pandemic put the kibosh on all of that. But yes, I think there is progress: there is definitely, it’s working, for sure. It’s working to the point that they, All Saints, also created the Diversity role for me to also even out what needs to be brought to the Back Bay.

But unfortunately, these things take time. We can’t just do one concert and find that all of a sudden the entire community or Roxbury is packed in First Church. This will happen in time. The pandemic halted things as they were, as things were really starting to pick up. And I hope that we can kind of pick up where we left off, whenever we return to normal post-pandemic.

To close, is it arrogant to suggest to underserved people that their music is somehow not as good as Western classical music, and to raise themselves up they need to be coming to Symphony Hall and/or listening to Beethoven. What’s wrong with Thelonious Monk?

Nothing’s wrong with Thelonious Monk. First of all, Bach and Mozart aren’t American. They’re not really ours. We have the Western European tradition with us, of course, but it doesn’t belong to Boston or the US. That’s not us. We shouldn’t be asking people of color whether their music’s good enough. We should be turning the question around back to everyone else, to white people and saying, why isn’t your music good enough? European composers saw the merit and the brilliance of Negro songs and slave songs and spirituals and Negro spirituals, and understood that this is American music, so apparently this is the American style. This what we have to offer: slave songs and spirituals; that is our early music. That’s American early music. Because of race and other issues, it didn’t really evolve along the lines of incorporating classical styles and didn’t really go that way too well. There are some who did integrate. Horace Rice melded the idea of American music and European music into brilliant works of art.

And Dvořák?

Oh, of course. Absolutely. And not just Dvořák, but Delius also saw that Europe was obsessed with the music. Michael Tippet in A Child of Our Time used spirituals as a kind of the place where chorales would have taken place in Bach passions. White classical composers outside of the US saw the beauty and brilliance of this music in ways that it seems many Americans didn’t. And so, yes, we need to say to communities of color that this music is just as good.

People who look like us have been performing, writing this, in these styles as well, for a very long time. So there’s joy that exists. Obviously, Denis Garcia existed. Ignatius Sancho existed. Scott Joplin and Justin Holland existed, and wrote in these styles, in their times, and it’s beautiful music. We’ve always had a seat at the table. We’ve always been a part of this. But we need to express and make it clear to White Americans that this is what should be explored. We should all understand that our style of American music evolved into ragtime and jazz and barbershop and blues and rock and rap and such, but the beauty of this music exists as a path to follow as valid as more formalized Western styles. This is our music. Even if it’s folk music, it still needs to be respected and seen as just as valid and just as important as anything that was brought across the Atlantic to us, or with us.

That pretty much sums it up as the last word. But of course, you don’t expect more than 5% of the White population or 5% of the minority populations to like classical music ever, do you?

No. [LAUGHTER] I don’t. But I can sure as hell try. I believe in the power of music. I will never push for something that I don’t believe in fully. If I couldn’t, I would leave and go work at Starbucks for the rest of my life. Or I would finish my psychology degree. But I really do believe in music’s ability to change and help people. This isn’t just art. This isn’t just culture and entertainment for me. Music is service for me. There is a path forward in music that spoken word won’t cover. Many of the lessons and deep pleasures we find in cantatas can also be found in spirituals.

In the end, though, we shouldn’t make that choice on their behalf, because audiences choose what to hear.

Mobley concludes in the H+H press release, “I have always tried to present an un-straightwashed and un-whitewashed music history, especially in the classical space. I applaud H+H for recognizing the need to diversify their performances and reach out to new audiences. I look forward to working with them to open up the audience’s eyes to an unconventional and spellbinding collection of composers and broaden their appreciation for Baroque and Classical music.”

*Lift ev’ry voice and sing
Til earth and heaven ring
Ring with the harmonies of Liberty
Let our rejoicing rise
High as the list’ning skies
Let it resound loud as the rolling sea
Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us
Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us
Facing the rising sun of our new day begun
Let us march on ’til victory is won

Stony the road we trod
Bitter the chastening rod
Felt in the days when hope unborn had died
Yet with a steady beat
Have not our weary feet
Come to the place for which our fathers sighed?
We have come over a way that with tears has been watered
We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered
Out from the gloomy past
Til now we stand at last
Where the white gleam of our bright star is cast

God of our weary years
God of our silent tears
Thou who has brought us thus far on the way
Thou who has by Thy might
Led us into the light
Keep us forever in the path, we pray
Lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met Thee
Lest, our hearts drunk with the wine of the world, we forget Thee
Shadowed beneath Thy hand
May we forever stand
True to our God
True to our native land

— J. Rosamond Johnson and James Johnson

 

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  1. Great article- wonderful composers It is thrilling to see H&H paying homage to its glorious past, and bountiful future.

    Comment by virginia eskin — November 10, 2020 at 5:11 pm

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